Post-classical history

The Provisions of Oxford

THAT the elements hostile to Henry would sooner or later turn to Simon de Montfort for leadership was inevitable. They recognized his great ability and his soldierly gifts. At the investigation of his stewardship in Gascony they had seen him stand up boldly to the King, meeting charge with charge, taunt with taunt. They had fallen under the spell of his magnetic personality, his steady dark eyes, his warm smile. They knew him to be deeply and sincerely religious, stanchly loyal to any cause in which he had enlisted, willing always to take heavy risks when necessary. More and more the opposition had been rallying about him.

His actual assumption of leadership, however, can probably be traced to the accident of two assaults on the rights of individuals by the most cordially hated of the Lusignans, William of Valence, who was now proclaiming himself Earl of Pembroke. The King’s half brother had developed from the rather effeminate youth who had made such a pretense of chivalric observance into a man of the bitterest pride who believed himself above all law. One morning he sallied out from his castle of Hertford for a day’s hunting, and it happened that the fortunes of the chase carried his party into the park which surrounded the palace at Hatfield of the Bishop of Ely. The park was a remarkably fine ten-mile stretch of hunting land and was most zealously guarded by the bishop’s people. Centuries later it would become the property of Queen Elizabeth’s minister, Cecil, and he would build his magnificent Hatfield House on the site of the bishop’s manor. Here, while Spanish counsel ruled England and the smoke of Smithfield fires filled the horizon, Elizabeth would be sitting under an old oak when the messengers brought her intelligence that her sister Mary was dead.

William of Valence and his huntsmen had no right to invade such a closely held domain, but that carried no weight with the King’s brother. He led his men into the wood and, after a vigorous day’s sport, they came to the bishop’s palace to demand refreshment. The bishop was not there, but the servants produced beer for the unbidden guests. This seemed to William of Valence something less than respectful to his person as well as unsatisfactory to his thirst, and he directed his followers to break open the bishop’s cellar. “Swearing awfully,” as Matthew Paris puts it, the huntsmen smashed the padlocks and broke off the bungs of the casks which held my lord of Ely’s finest wine. They were all drunk when they took to saddle, not bothering to stop the flow of the costly wine from the damaged casks.

When informed of what had happened the bishop maintained an air of calm. “What necessity was there,” he asked in a mild tone, “to steal and plunder that which would have been freely and willingly given if they had asked for it?” Then his feelings gained mastery of him and a fire began to burn in his eyes. “Accursed,” he cried, “be so many kings in one kingdom!”

The Bishop of Ely had put into words the feeling of the whole nation. What he had said passed from mouth to mouth until the phrase, Accursed be so many kings in one kingdom, could have served as the rallying cry of revolution. The incident focused again the enmity of the people of England on the Lusignans. All other grievances, even the major discontent with the King’s willfully weak rule, seemed secondary to the universal resentment felt for the haughty upstarts.

A similar trespass occurred at the time now reached in the recording of events. The hatred of the people for the many kings had been mounting all the while. It so happened that a steward of William of Valence entered and did some damage to property of Simon de Montfort near Leicester. Simon took the King’s brother to task at the next meeting of the Council and was haughtily rebuffed. The pair would have resorted to steel if Henry had not thrown himself between them. Receiving no satisfaction in the matter, Simon brought it up again. He rose in the Hocktide Parliament of 1258, which met in London, and demanded that the injury done him be acknowledged and that compensation be given. William of Valence, his face contorted with anger, strode out to confront his accuser in the open space between the seats of the magnates.

“Traitor!” he cried. Then he further embroidered his accusation by adding, “Old traitor!”

“No, no, William,” said Simon de Montfort. “I am neither traitor nor traitor’s son. My father was not like yours!”

Steel was out this time when the King, fearing for the safety of his brother, thrust himself between them again, thereby bringing the royal legs into considerable jeopardy. The kingly person might have suffered some hurt if others had not intervened also.

Although nothing further seems to have been done at the time, the incident did not end there. By openly attacking the most hated of the Lusignans, Simon had made himself the one man around whom the opposition could group themselves. They were ready from that moment to stand behind Simon de Montfort and to fight against these continuous assaults on their rights and feelings. The Hocktide Parliament had begun its deliberations on April 9, and the quarrel took place immediately. On April 12 Simon was one of seven nobles who made a compact among themselves to stand together, to help one another to their rights “without wronging any man.”

The party of resistance was taking organized form at last.


The Earl of Leicester was now a dominant figure among the malcontents, but two other noblemen loomed up strongly.

The first of these was Richard de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, who for one reason or another had been a spectacular character all his life. A grandson of William the Marshal, he had been made a ward of Hubert de Burgh at the age of eight, when his father died. His secret marriage when fourteen with Hubert’s pretty and ill-fated daughter Meggotta had plunged his guardian still deeper into the bad graces of the King. As poor Meggotta died almost immediately thereafter, the youthful earl was married off promptly to Maud de Lacey, a daughter of the Earl of Lincoln. On growing up he was considered the most prominent of the old nobility, and he had played his part in all the important events of the reign. In 1253 his ten-year-old son Gilbert, called the Bed because of the color of his hair, was married to Alice of Angoulême, daughter of Guy de Lusignan and therefore a stepniece of the King. The Earl of Gloucester took this alliance with royalty seriously, but as he was intensely proud and most tenacious of his rights as a leading peer, Henry had never been able to count on his support. At the Hocktide Parliament he had, somewhat reluctantly and with a great deal of grumbling, placed himself in opposition.

If there had been any doubt as to the Earl of Gloucester’s final position, the loose tongue of Henry’s evil genius, William of Valence, settled the issue. In the course of an angry discussion the latter charged that the earl was in league with the Welsh because the lands of Gloucester had been spared in the last raids. It was an idle and senseless assertion, exactly the kind of thing the King was in the habit of saying at the wrong time. The insult certainly could not have been timed worse. Richard de Clare ranged himself at once on the side of the King’s enemies.

The spokesman of the barons was a more attractive figure than the unpredictable Earl of Gloucester. Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk, had been initiated as marshal of England when the last of the five Marshal sons died, his mother being the oldest daughter of the Good Knight. Further luster had been added to his name by marriage with Princess Isabella of Scotland. He was outspoken and courageous, with a stronger hand on the lance in a tilting than a head for serious counsel, a temper which was famous for its brevity and flaming quality.

Because he was marshal of England it was natural for him to act as spokesman, but it was manifest to all that he could never be considered a leader. Roger Bigod was a remarkably good lieutenant and admirable in the role of sword arm. He was, moreover, without guile; and the leader of a popular cause must have cool inner reserves, a capacity for shrewd planning and contriving, a willingness even to sacrifice men and some part of principle to the main issue.

Henry came to the Hocktide Parliament in dire straits. He asked for a tallage of one third of all belongings in the kingdom, a stiff demand. The magnates were equally stiff in their attitude. Roger Bigod, as their spokesman, declared that the day of vague discussion had passed and that the barons must have more than sworn promises which would be broken as fast as the King could get his absolution from Rome. They were no longer willing to have the nation involved in madly extravagant adventures and, to prevent their recurrence, there must be reform in administration from top to bottom. The main offices under the monarch—justiciar, treasurer, and chancellor—must be filled by men of substance and no longer by glorified clerks of the King’s own choosing. There must be a commission, finally, to direct the measures of reform.

Henry had never been faced so openly before with the determination of his subjects to be free of his weak personal rule. The challenge of the barons was as straight and fierce as a sword thrust. He backed away, incensed beyond measure, his pride in a splutter of protest. The coterie to whom he listened—the Queen, the Lusignans, John Mansel—were all against compliance. With the exception of Mansel, they advised taking a high hand. Mansel favored the opposite course: dissemble, he whispered to the King, maneuver, make promises, outwit them, play for time.

This was all very well, but certain ugly facts had to be faced. The King was now completely without funds and weighed down by his debts. Pressure on the monasteries and the Jews was yielding almost nothing. Only by direct taxation could Henry’s difficulties be solved. In addition to this ugly fact he was faced by men who seemed to him equally ugly in their determination.

On the last day of April the barons attended the session in full armor. They had left their swords at the door, but this did not serve to allay the King’s alarm.

“What is it, my lords?” he cried, looking at the stern faces above the coats of mail. “Am—am I your prisoner?”

The answer, delivered by Roger Bigod, was intended to be reassuring. Violent intent was disclaimed. It had been a gesture, nevertheless, which could not be misunderstood.

Reluctantly and bitterly the King yielded. On May 2 it was announced that he had agreed in principle to the demands of his barons and that Parliament would adjourn until June 11 at Oxford to work out the details.

His yielding, it was believed, meant the end of personal rule. A feeling of optimism took hold of the country, a conviction that at last the weathercock King would be securely anchored.


Oxford in the thirteenth century was not what it became later, a much-restricted and law-bound lodginghouse for the university. It was a city of the first importance, the western tip of the sickle of forts securing the line of the Thames, the point where roads fanned out to the Marcher country, the field headquarters of the mendicant friars. It was a national sounding board, echoing the birth of ideas, the spread of opinion, the mutter of sedition.

When Henry arrived for the adjourned meeting of Parliament he found that the barons had taken advantage of an impending campaign in Wales to bring their followers with them. The place was like an armed camp. The brown-habited Franciscan and the yellow-garbed Jew had been shoved into the background by knights in chain mail and squires in coats of cuir-bouilli. More longbows were in evidence than grammars at St. Martin’s, which served as the center of town, at St. Frideswide on the edge of the Jewry, in Beaumont Palace and Oxford Castle. Men were camped on Banbury Road, Hogacre, Greenditch, Portmeadow, even at the approaches to Folly Bridge, where in a strange tower lived the strangest man, the greatest man, that this magnificent century produced: Roger Bacon, scientist and iconoclast, his back bent in the brown habit of the Minorites, his hands stained with the acids of experiment, his mind racing on the cold outer edges of time and space.

The King who had stammered and gasped when he saw his barons sitting in Parliament in their armor had double reason to pause at the spectacle of Oxford in arms, and he met their demands in a mood which could only be described as submissive. This session, which later was given erroneously the title of the Mad Parliament, could not have been held at Beaumont Palace, which lacked the space for such numbers. More likely the magnates assembled in Oxford Castle, where the keep and the square lower tower afforded plenty of room. One chronicle places the meeting in the monastery of the Dominicans.

The principles which had been approved at London were expeditiously applied to a reorganization of the machinery of state. A committee of twenty-four, half chosen by the King, half by the magnates, was appointed to handle the details of the operation. Henry’s nominees included his three half brothers, John Mansel, and the leading peers who were standing by him. The baronial half included Gloucester, Simon de Montfort, Roger Bigod, and Walter Cantilupe, the Bishop of Worcester. This body set to work at once.

Out of their deliberations came the creation of two new administrative bodies. The first was a permanent council of fifteen men who would sit continuously with the King and advise him on all points of policy and who would have, moreover, the power to restrain him; a gentle method of applying the right of veto. The second was a body of twenty-four to deal specifically with the difficulties of the King and find ways of meeting them. It was ordained that three sessions of Parliament were to be held each year at specified times for the discussion of state problems. The filling of the responsible offices under the King was to be a function of the council of fifteen.

It will be seen that these regulations, which came to be called the Provisions of Oxford, were more than a curb of the King’s power. Cloak their intent in the most careful and polite of phrase and they still constitute a transfer of final authority to the council of fifteen. That Henry agreed to terms as humiliating as this can be accepted as evidence of the panic into which he had been thrown by his recent mistakes and failures. Early in August he published his consent, after taking a solemn oath to abide by the Provisions, a step which was demanded also of Lord Edward.

One of the first acts of the Council was to have the Crown resume control of all royal castles, a move directed at the royal favorites among whom the bulk of the strongholds had been distributed. A list of peers, nineteen in all, was drawn up to undertake the responsibility in their stead. Simon de Montfort placed Kenilworth and Odiham in the hands of the Council at once, but the Lusignan half brothers, who had already refused to swear obedience to the Provisions, declared their intention of retaining control of all the castles in their hands. William of Valence clashed again with the Earl of Leicester on this issue, and the latter said to him grimly, “This hold for sure, either you give up your castles or you lose your head!”

The hated King’s Men had not been under personal attack during the proceedings at Oxford. They had served on the committee of twenty-four and they would not have been disturbed had they not elected to stand out against the Council. Even though Prince Edward came forward boldly in their favor, the four Lusignans were convinced by the bitterness of the storm raised throughout the country that flight was the only course left them. They attempted to get away but, realizing the impossibility of making their escape, took refuge in Aymer’s castle at Winchester. Here they were joined by Edward, but this did not stop the baronial party from laying siege promptly to the place. Lacking the supplies for defense, the brothers were compelled to surrender.

They were treated with more consideration than might have been expected under the circumstances. They were told they must leave the country, and a choice was presented to them: the first, exile for all of them; the second, a proposal that Guy and Geoffrey abjure the realm while William and Aymer were to be retained in custody in England. The brothers chose the first course. Dover was then fixed as their port of departure, and it was agreed that they might take the sum of six thousand marks with them. All their properties in England would be confiscated, but a subsistence arrangement would be made for them after their departure.

There was a recognized method of dealing with men who had agreed to abjure the realm. A point of departure was fixed and a certain number of days allowed for the land journey. The abjurer had to wear the garb of a condemned criminal, a tunic of the cheapest cloth. He walked barefoot and carried a wooden cross in his hand. He was not permitted to stray from the most direct road nor to stay more than one night in any one place. If no vessel was available on his arrival, he was compelled to wade out into the sea up to his neck each day as evidence of his intention to depart at the first opportunity.

There was no thought of invoking any of these regulations in connection with the departure of the much-execrated Lusignans, although the public would have howled its delight at the spectacle of the belligerent Aymer tramping barefoot to his appointed fate or the exquisite William wading out into the waves. There was, however, considerable delay in getting them off. The wind blew finally from the right quarter and they put out to sea, landing at Boulogne, where they were received with suspicion and hostility.

Their departure was hailed with almost universal delight. There would be fewer kings in England now. The greed of the King’s Men would no longer stir enmity, their influence would no longer be felt in matters of state.


On an occasion during the late summer, after the Provisions had been ratified and put into effect, the King elected to go from Westminster to London by water. A thunderstorm blew up while he was on the way. As the King had a great fear of thunder and lightning, it was decided to put ashore. The bargemen, selecting the first water stair which offered, landed him at Durham House, which Simon de Montfort was occupying as his city home.

The latter appeared at a gate in the high masonry wall to receive them. As the King and his party were well drenched, he met them without donning hat or cloak. “Do not be alarmed,” he said. “The storm is spent.”

Henry was desirous of gaining shelter as quickly as possible, but he turned at this and regarded his brother-in-law with a hostile eye. “By the hand of God,” he declared, “I fear thee more than all the thunder in the world!”

The earl accepted this declaration of his liege lord’s enmity without any change of countenance. “You should not fear me, my lord,” he answered. “I am your true friend and my sole desire is to preserve England from ruin and you from the destruction which your false counselors are preparing for you.”

There is good reason to believe that this was an honest reflection of Simon de Montfort’s feeling at this time. His hatred of the King might have played some part in driving him into the ranks of the opposition in the first place, but there can be no doubt that a sincere belief in the need for change now actuated him. He was never known to blow hot and cold; once committed to a course in which he believed, he was wholehearted in his adherence, even fanatical.

The charge has been lodged against him that it was ambition which spurred him on to organize the baronial party into a fighting unit. This may have some basis of truth. The Earl of Leicester was an ambitious man, without a doubt, knowing himself to possess the qualities of leadership. In times of crisis destiny has the habit of beckoning to one man. Simon de Montfort knew himself the favorite of destiny in the situation created by the reckless government of the self-willed King. No one else was capable of stepping into the shoes of Stephen Langton, certainly not the undependable Gloucester or the brave Bigod. There was no reluctance on Simon’s part to step forward in response to the beckoning of the unerring finger. There was in him a furious gladness that now at last, after years of wrangling and shilly-shallying, the issue would be joined.

But if personal ambition had been the predominating impulse, he would have followed a different course after the baronial victory at Oxford. The reins of power were within his reach had he cared to gather them in. Henry was in a thoroughly penitent mood and, for the time being at least, incapable of facing the aroused magnates. His quavering, “Am I your prisoner?” spoken at London in April, was an indication of the craven mood into which he had lapsed at the first shaking of the baronial fist. The King must have realized, moreover, that he was alone in this crisis. His favorites had been seized and bundled unceremoniously out of the country. Richard of Cornwall was in Germany, attending to his complicated affairs and seeing his slowly accumulated wealth vanish like the snows of April. Edward was too young to count. The men who had been running the country under the King, even the clever Mansel, were lacking in stature. It was cold and lonely for the weathercock King, high up on his monarchial ridgepole, with such strange and bitter winds causing him to gyrate madly on his gilded pedestal. He must have been in a mood to welcome able assistance, even that of his detested brother-in-law; particularly if he could, by detaching him from the baronial party, deal a blow to the solidarity of his enemies.

In arriving at any understanding of the inner motives of this militant champion, Simon de Montfort, it must be borne in mind that the men of this day, steeped in feudal traditions, had no conception of government save that of the monarchial state. The barons were striving for nothing more drastic than a sounder basis for the exercise of the King’s powers. It was not in any of their minds that Henry should be removed as head of the state. Simon de Montfort had no such thought, as became clear after the battle of Lewes. The Provisions of Oxford contained the germs of constitutional government, but there was a clear understanding that they were temporary in character and designed to provide a workable system against the day when a permanent solution could be found.

Had Simon de Montfort been actuated by ambition he would have seen a much better role for himself than that of leader of the opposition. A strong man acting under Henry in accord with the Provisions would have been the solution most acceptable to the mind of the age instead of a continuation of the struggle to its inevitable end—the extinction of royal power or the final defeat of the barons. It would not have been a difficult matter for Simon to slip into the spot once occupied by Hubert de Burgh. His wife would have favored a reconciliation and might have served as the go-between. Henry was in a sufficiently desperate frame of mind to respond, provided he himself retained all the semblance of kingship and could be assured of relief from the mortifying difficulties in which he wallowed. He had done so once before. When he had arrived in Gascony and found himself facing conditions he did not understand, he had sent for the man he had vilified with such blasts of hatred in the hearing at Westminster.

Such a partnership would not have lasted long, of course. A spirited war horse could not travel for any length of time in double harness with one which had never learned discipline. This, nevertheless, was the solution a purely ambitious man would have sought, power and wealth under the King. Leadership of opposition is a cold and thankless task at best.

It was leadership of opposition which Simon de Montfort selected. Perhaps he knew that to accept power under the King would be a temporary matter, an arrangement doomed to an explosive termination. Perhaps he was wise enough, and unselfish enough, to realize that the success of the government under the Provisions would depend on vigilant opposition and that he himself was the best qualified for the role of watchdog.

It is certain that he had become by this time almost fanatical in his devotion to the cause of better government. This he demonstrated in his first serious altercation with the Earl of Gloucester. During the meeting of Parliament in February of the following year the two earls clashed over the terms of ordinance. Gloucester wanted the advantages gained at Oxford to apply only to the nobility. Leicester stood out for an engagement whereby the peers would extend to their dependents the same rights they were exacting from the Crown for themselves. Gloucester was so insistently opposed that Simon flared into anger.

“I care not to live and act with men so fickle and so false!” he cried.

He not only withdrew from the deliberations but from England as well, crossing the Channel into France, where he moodily concerned himself with personal matters.

This outburst was not the chagrin of a leader balked by the opposition of his supporters. Simon was the heart and soul of the cause, but Gloucester’s name had appeared first in the Provisions; they still shared the command. It was an impulsive and irrational act and it endangered the success of the cause. Why did Simon behave in this way? It was not in keeping with his usual statesmanlike attitude. Perhaps he saw in the quarrel an opportunity to bring things to an issue and to oust Gloucester from the equality they were sharing. Perhaps—and this is the more reasonable assumption—it was caused by the passionate resentment of an overworked and overwrought man who saw something very close to his heart being weakened and debased.

The most telling evidence as to the sentiments which actuated this able and darkly passionate man is supplied by none other than the King’s son, Lord Edward, who would from this moment forward play an important part on the great stage. In late summer of 1259, while the King was in France in connection with the French treaty, word reached London that the prince was paying the city a visit in advance of the October meeting of Parliament. This caused speculation of a decidedly apprehensive character. Edward had not been behaving himself well. He had been keeping about him a company of young knights, mostly recruited from abroad, who caroused wildly and pillaged wherever they went. Having no concern over matters of detail, he was leaving the management of his castles and lands to stewards who were enriching themselves at the expense of the tenants. It was even reported that he had killed a youth of common parentage without any provocation. His very young wife being still in France, the prince had been displaying an interest elsewhere, in the dark-eyed Alice of Angoulême who had married the Earl of Gloucester’s son. Alice had inherited some of the beauty of her grandmother, the late Queen Isabella, and as she was very flirtatious and provocative, she had caught the eye of her stepcousin Edward. The people of England who had been ready to love and follow the tall prince were beginning to dread the day when he would rule in Henry’s stead. They feared to find in him another John.

The Edward who rode into London on this occasion was a grown man. Managing his horse with sure hand, his surcoat embroidered with the three leopards and laced to his metal skullcap, the chausses of steel which covered his thighs the longest in the kingdom, he was an impressive figure. He made his entrance with fitting sobriety; no curvetting of horses in youthful display, no wild caracoling, no exuberance of any kind. The prince, in fact, showed a grave face to the Londoners who watched his arrival. There was an almost somber air about him, as though he realized the extremity which affairs had reached and was deeply concerned over the part he was to play.

Simon de Montfort was in London at the time, having returned at the insistence of the magnates, who needed his sure hand on the rudder. He was again at Durham House, which lay out beyond Cheringe Village, now Charing Cross. The champion of the people was prone to deep spells of unhappiness, and in his moods of melancholy he would stand in the stone turret at the water’s edge and watch the wool barges going by; and wonder, perhaps, what was in store for this realm of England, what the future held for these brisk and cheerful people. What part in the life of centuries to come would the wool merchant have, and the bargemen and the shevel-gabbit custodian of the river stairs shouting hoarse-voiced greetings to acquaintances on the river? The earl had no longer any concern with normal things. He brooded constantly over the situation in England. His eyes had turned to the future.

Edward rode straight to the Tower of London and took up his quarters there. All of walled London lay between the Tower and Durham House, but the two tall men, the fair-headed prince and the dark peer, were constantly in each other’s company nevertheless. They rode and walked and talked together with every evidence of accord. In the streets and the inns of London, in all the mean hovels as well as the palaces, speculation was rife. What did this mean? Edward had sworn to obey the Provisions with open reluctance. Why did he now consort on amicable terms with the man chiefly responsible for forcing the assent of the King to these ironclad regulations? It was to be expected under the circumstances that wild rumors would spread in London, the wildest of all being a story that the heir to the throne and his godfather were plotting to anticipate nature and put Edward in the King’s place.

It is purely a matter of speculation as to how far the relationship between the two men developed. There was no thought between them of supplanting Henry. Edward’s love for his father would have made him recoil from such a course. It is equally clear, however, that he had been won over temporarily to a belief in the popular cause, and this was remarkable because he had been the most militant of his father’s supporters.

It is easier to conceive of the nature of their talks. The sage earl and the eager neophyte discussed the best ways of governing a country like England and, no doubt, the responsibilities of subject to King, and King to subject. More than anything else, they talked of the science of warfare, in which Edward took the most intense interest. He could not have found a better teacher than Simon de Montfort. The battles the latter had fought in Gascony had never been large enough to be called important, but he had always commanded his inadequate forces with the greatest skill. He had never lost a brush with the enemy and had never besieged a castle in vain. So brilliant had been his performance there, in fact, that he was now generally conceded to be the best soldier in Europe. Edward, willing to learn, listened to this master tactician with respect and admiration.

What had brought about the change in Edward’s attitude? A belief dearly in Simon de Montfort, a recognition of the deep sense of idealism which governed the baronial leader. The turn that affairs had taken in England had changed Lord Edward from the roistering leader of bachelor knights into a man with a serious concern for the inheritance into which he would come someday. He would never have given his friendship and trust, even for so short a time, to a man actuated solely by hostility to the King or personal ambition.

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